COVID-19 and Parliament Contents

Summary

Parliament’s response to the pandemic

The Committee has previously drawn attention to the difficulties facing Parliament, in particular the House of Lords, in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities of holding the Government to account and scrutinising legislation adequately. Parliament is under increased scrutiny about the way it works. It is against this backdrop that the Committee began its inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on Parliament.

The onset of COVID-19 presented a significant challenge for the operation of Parliament, including its ability to continue meeting to carry out its constitutional functions. The Government used a range of emergency powers and introduced a significant quantity of legislation, the scope of which had not been seen since the Second World War. Parliament’s ability to scrutinise these important measures in its usual manner was limited by time constraints and the physical restrictions introduced in response to the pandemic, which meant that Parliament could not meet in the usual way.

Between March and June 2020, the House of Lords moved from physical to virtual then to hybrid proceedings. The significant efforts by staff across Parliament and the members of the House of Lords Commission and Procedure and Privileges Committee ensured that the House continued to meet despite difficult and unprecedented circumstances. We commend everyone involved.

Impact on scrutiny in the House of Lords

The principle that the Government should first make significant policy announcements to Parliament, which is a key part of the Ministerial Code, was already under strain before the pandemic and was further undermined during it. While it is important for the Government to keep the public informed during the pandemic, the Government must adhere to the Ministerial Code and prioritise Parliament when making significant policy announcements, on the pandemic and more generally. Only then can Parliament’s centrality in holding the Government to account be respected.

The high volume of statutory instruments laid by the Government in response to the pandemic, and the use of fast-track procedures, severely limited Parliament’s ability to scrutinise significant powers. The blurring of legislation and guidance undermined public understanding of the rules.

In order to keep working through the pandemic Parliament, like many other organisations, moved quickly to adopt new technologies. Members were advised to work from home, and most did so. However, changes to House of Lords procedures as a result of hybrid proceedings, particularly the loss of spontaneity in members’ interactions during debates, has resulted in Parliament’s essential scrutiny role becoming less effective, including its capacity to hold the Government to account. This presents significant problems for both members and ministers.

Speaking times of one or two minutes per backbencher, which has sometimes occurred during COVID-19, do not allow members to make a meaningful contribution. It may be necessary for alternative approaches to be considered, particularly if some debates continue to be over-subscribed after the House emerges from COVID-19. This could include introducing a limit on the number of speakers and minimum speaking times for certain items of business.

Notwithstanding the limitations of hybrid proceedings, we accept that they have been necessary while a significant number of members are unable to attend the House of Lords in person.  We welcome the benefits that remote proceedings appear to have had for members with disabilities, health concerns or caring responsibilities, or who are geographically distant from Westminster.

Emerging from COVID-19

As Parliament emerges from COVID-19, the House of Lords should reflect on its experiences during the pandemic and consider how it can fulfil its role more effectively once things return to ‘normal’, including responding to forthcoming challenges.

As a first step, and following the experience of hybrid proceedings and remote voting, the House must carefully consider what form the proceedings of the House should take after COVID-19. As a next step, we hope the Procedure and Privileges Committee will publish draft proposals for further debate, before the House is invited to make a final decision. These proposals should take into account the impact on the effectiveness of the House in discharging its constitutional roles of scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account, public perception, inclusivity and business continuity, as well as the overall dynamic of the House of Lords.

House of Lords select committees have operated effectively as virtual committees during the pandemic; the value of their work has been underlined. At a time of profound national reflection prompted by COVID-19, the expertise and longer-term perspective of the House’s committees will further enhance their role in holding the Government to account and engaging with the public as the UK emerges from the pandemic. We recommend that committees continue to allow virtual participation by members and witnesses, where appropriate, including to receive evidence from a more diverse range of witnesses from across the UK and abroad, and should receive the necessary resources to fulfil their role to full effect.

Longer-term resilience of Parliament

Parliament’s experiences in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic raise issues for the longer-term resilience of Parliament, including the long-running discussion about the need to restore the Palace of Westminster.

It is regrettable that the potential impact of social-distancing requirements to tackle a pandemic had not been considered in Parliament’s business continuity planning. However, the lack of planning for this was not unique to Parliament; many other organisations faced the same dilemma of operating in a different manner without any plans for doing so. We recommend the House of Lords Commission conducts a lessons-learned exercise on Parliament’s response to the pandemic as part of revising business continuity plans. In doing so it should seek input from members and take into account the importance of Parliament continuing holding the Government to account whatever the circumstances.

We recommend that the House administration should continue to develop its capacity to support virtual proceedings, in case this is required to support Parliament’s future business continuity arrangements or the restoration of the Palace of Westminster.

We welcome the House of Lords Commission’s ongoing support for the Restoration and Renewal programme. We regret the continued delays in delivering the works to restore the Palace of Westminster. While some delays have inevitably resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, the apparent lack of support from the Government for the programme continues to be regrettable. Parliament has demonstrated resilience in the face of the pandemic, yet the continued deterioration of the Palace of Westminster increases the risk of both Houses being forced to resort to virtual methods of working in future.





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